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Anti-theft immobilizers in cars are now obsolete. What can replace them?

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The gold standard of anti-theft protection that was mandated by Canada’s federal government is now effectively obsolete, defeated by thieves dozens of times a day without a clear replacement in the works — often leaving drivers to come up with their own anti-theft solutions.

And the immobilizer’s demise appears to have caught many car manufacturers by surprise, as even brand new vehicles can fall prey to tactics that allow thieves to drive off with a top-of-the-line car or truck in minutes.

“We looked out of the window and the car was not there. It was Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas, basically,” said Giovanni Cristofanilli, whose new rented Ram truck was driven away by thieves off his driveway in Ajax, Ont. on December 24.

A neighbour’s surveillance video camera caught the thieves taking about 15 minutes between arriving and starting the engine. Its hazard lights were flashing but the truck made no sound — a sign the thieves had disabled the horn before using technology to start the vehicle and drive off.

Inside the truck were many of Cristofanilli’s possessions, including a stroller for his son Leaan. And what bothers him is that it was a new truck that he thought would have had the best security possible.

“I can’t understand it. It’s a brand new car,” Cristofanilli said.

The Ontario Provincial Police told CTV News they did recover his vehicle, sitting in a parking lot near the Quebec border, likely en route to being sold overseas by organized criminals — something officials estimate adds up to a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The truck, like many new cars, uses an immobilizer system that was made mandatory in 2007: If the key is not detected within the truck, rit can be very difficult to start the car.

“It makes it more difficult to steal, almost to the point where you have to have keys to steal the vehicle,” Alfred Normand of the Insurance Bureau of Canada told CTV News in 2017.

Unfortunately, that is the loophole thieves have found and then started using en masse: Devices that trick your car into thinking the key is in the vehicle.

A video from the York Regional Police Service shows a man in a jumpsuit stealing a car (YRP).

One method is through relay attacks that decode the signal your fob is emitting, and boost it to someone near the car. The car thinks the fob is inside it and lets the driver start the car.

Another method is by cloning the key to a dummy fob controlled by the thief. The car is able to start and thieves drive quickly away.

The mass adoption of these tactics, and vehicles that are largely vulnerable to them, have created a bonanza for criminals who can steal multiple vehicles from any given street.

Every day in 2023 on average there have been 32 cars stolen in Toronto, and 22 in Peel Region, which is more than double the same period just two years ago.

Mechanic Kamran Malik at K&N Auto Sound and Security in Scarborough has a dim view of the fob-based immobilizer, saying car companies put too much faith in a single device. And when it was defeated, there were few backup plans.

“New technology is easy to hack into,” Kamran told CTV News. His suggestion: Equip the vehicle with other devices, including secret switches, that must be flipped to start the car.

“It will shut down the fuel, shut down the ignition, shut down the fuel pump — the vehicle will just crank. You’re not going nowhere,” he said.

Car manufacturers have said they are rolling out other security measures for some models. But it’s slow going, because of many differences between models and even model years.

Transport Canada says they’re watching the situation, but did not say they have specific plans to mandate a second security device that could prevent more thefts.

“As technology continues to evolve, Transport Canada will continue to monitor the effect of vehicle theft on road safety with a view to ensuring that federal standards reflect safety issues related to theft for convenience,” the statement said.

Chris, a mechanic from All Ontario Detailing and Security who upgrades vehicles to prevent theft, told CTV News it would be better to secure some of the access methods that thieves often use, such as disabling the horn to make the car alarm less functional while they do their work.

He said he believed Transport Canada could look to create a market-based solution by penalizing a car manufacturer based on the rate of theft — that would create an incentive for manufacturers to come up with a next-generation theft deterrent.

“We actually went backwards with these things,” he said. “A market-wide solution could come from the manufacturers to make it much harder for vehicles to be compromised.” 

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